What springs to mind when you hear the word “governance”? For many people, it’s bureaucracy. They see a thick manual of policies and checklists, a central committee that delays decisions, or an endless round of audits and compliance checks. The next thing that comes to mind is skunkworks—how do we go underground to avoid the governance police?
It doesn’t have to be like that. Governance isn’t about compliance. It's about making good decisions in an efficient way.
What Is Governance?
My preferred definition comes from the Institute on Governance. They’ve defined governance as “the process whereby societies or organizations make important decisions, determine whom they involve and how they render account.” This identifies four key aspects to governance:
- Defining which decisions are important. Some decisions have a large impact on whether we achieve our goals. Most don’t. Good governance ensures we focus our energy on the important decisions.
- Defining who makes these decisions. How much time have you seen wasted on demarcation disputes? How many decisions have you seen fall through the cracks because no one took responsibility for them? Good governance ensures that lines of authority are clear.
- Defining “due process.” If the decision-making process is clear, we don't need to spend time making it up as we go along. We can focus our energy on analyzing our options and balancing trade-offs. If people can see that we’ve followed the agreed process, then they’re less likely to challenge the resulting decision and we won't waste time revisiting old decisions.
- Accounting for outcomes. Accountability is not the same as blame. Good governance builds in feedback loops. It ensures that we track the outcomes of decisions and, hence, refine those decisions as we learn more. Equally, it ensures that we monitor and refine the decision-making process itself.
Software development is knowledge work. It’s all about decisions—which features to prioritize and which to delay, which design trade-offs to emphasize, where to allocate our effort, and so on. Good governance ensures that we make these decisions as effectively as possible. We involve the right people in the right way, and we learn and refine as we go along.
Conversely, poor governance leads to poor decision making. We waste time on trivial decisions. We involve people who lack the necessary expertise and understanding. We define bespoke processes for every decision. We get bogged down in politicking and infighting as people argue about decision rights. And, at the end of all this, we’re left with decisions that don't stick, either because they lack legitimacy in the eyes of key stakeholders or because they aren’t grounded in solid evidence and analysis.
The sad fact is that organizations that don’t address governance end up spending a lot of time on it. They discuss it afresh for each decision as they design the decision-making process and argue about decision rights. They’re then left with little time to gather data, analyze options, and make the decision, so they make bad decisions.